Commemorating National Humiliation in China

Today is September 18, 1931, at least in China, where the 80th anniversary of the incident which unleashed the Japanese Imperial Army to break off the entire northeast from the Republic of China and, a few months later, proclaim it an independent garrison state named “Manchukuo” which was justified on rhetoric of ethnic harmony and propogation of the yen bloc.

It’s usually a sign that something else is going wrong, or that the CCP is worried about something other than international relations with Japan, when an anniverary like this one gets such big billing.  Sure, 8 is a important in Chinese numerology, and Manchukuo was a huge deal, and there was a pre-stimulant to bringing all this back online earlier in August in Heilongjiang, but this commemoration is much more state-driven than “demanded by the people.”

I was at the September 18 memorial museum on August 15, 2011, the anniversary of an important victory in the War of Resistance.  In spite of the fact that 8-15 is the logical and victorious feel-good anniversarial antipode to 9-18, the September 18 museum was closed on August 15, and the sidewalks and concrete plaza were being redone, clearly in preparation for today.   Clearly for the CCP it is more expedient in this case to pump up the original offense by the Japanese.  And thus the focus on September 18.  There is a great deal more that could be said about the leadup to this commemoration and what it all means, but in the meantime it should suffice to note its occurence and the broad, country-wide, mobilization to remember the date which included, according to my friends in Sichuan, a long five-minute siren cry in the major cities of that province, as it did last year on the same date.

According to Kyodo News, who surely had people on the scene (as they did, and as was I, on the Marco Polo Bridge on the 70th anniversary of that incident in 2007), about thirty youth in Shenyang chanted insults at Japan and burned a Japanese flag outside the museum.  For Huanqiu Shibao’s propogation of this news inside of China (no photos, however), click the photograph below.

The day and the actions are headline news on, so clearly thirty boys burning a flag in Shenyang is much more to the taste of the censors than a few thousand closing a chemical plant in Dalian, and for obvious reasons.

As long as the action remains small and doesn’t prevent Japanese investors in Dongbei, the tremors can ripple out and we can all gather once more around the image of the once-disgraced Generalissimo or the presently-strong Chinese Communist Party, whose underground resistance to Japan in Manchuria in 1931-32 was about to be eviscerated not by some counterinsurgent stroke by Japan’s Marshal Petreaus (Okamura), but by an inner-Party purge known as the Minsaengdan Incident.

Don’t worry, CCP, I have taken your advice to heart, and will never forget the Angus Ward Incident!  When it comes to foreign plots in Shenyang, an American telegraphing his State Department masters in Foggy Bottom in 1948 would be every bit as significant as September 18, 1931, except that you, Party of Parties, had the foresight to prevent the reconstitution of the Japanese Empire under American aegis after the Reverse Course in Japan, for Tojo’s dream and animating spirit, as I have learned so well, was essentially transferred into that otherwise Victorian-Bismarckian skull of the Anglo conqueror MacArthur in 1948.  And thus the Angus Ward Incident should also be celebrated, like August 15, as a mark of pure success in the growth of China’s regional and global power, and as a step away from the politics of humiliation that, like a particularly consequential dog bite, should be remembered as often as possible.

And once more into that good breach…

In the 9-18 Memorial Museum in Shenyang, the T-Shirts read "National Humiliation: September 18" -- courtesy Xinhua/Huanqiu Shibao


  1. I am not sure if I understand this part– ‘In spite of the fact that 8-15 is the logical and victorious feel-good anniversarial antipode to 9-18’.
    It is true that 8-15-1945 is the day when victory date over Japan…but what is wrong with Commemorating 09-18?
    I am not sure if you really understand China. After reading all your writings on Chin, I feel you write good but all from a biased perspective, which is not uncommon in west part of the world.
    You main purposes, if my understanding is correct, is saying that CCP is using 09-18 for political purposes.
    Yes, you are absolutly right!
    But my question is which political party wouldn’t do so?
    You think Dr. Sun Yat-Seng and his party is any better than CCP?

    1. Hi Cloud Xu, and thanks for the comment.

      There isn’t anything necessarily “wrong” with commemorating 9/18, but it’s really about context and assumptions. Chinese historical memory tends to be different from that in West, certainly, and the 20th century did a real number on the process. (Sun Yatsen and the Guomindang, by the way, were much more keyed into the “National Humiliation” argument than the CCP, and the CCP really as it does these things today shows how well it has learned from Guomindang in using history as mobilization method.) China is a growing and powerful state that has very little need to politicize a given anniversary to remind people of the Manchurian Incident as it was called here. I have good friends who lived through the Manchukuo experiment, some of them as employees of the Japanese puppet state, and they remember it quite well, if not fondly. People in Dongbei also remember other periods of history as well, but these do not receive museums or state funding or mentions in the newspaper.

      And in the West we tend to be more focused on the “silent anniversaries.”

      Finally, of course you’re right, I don’t understand China, but who, especially Chinese, “really understands China” anyway? Does Wen Jiabao have some total comprehension of what China truly is as opposed to a lonely monk or a migrant worker? China is too big for any single person to “understand,” and that is the whole point of studying it. Besides, I’m born in the United States and speak/read English, but I wouldn’t doubt that an outsider, even one working in English as a second or third language, could understand the USA better than I could. And I’m looking forward to more criticism of the US from various Chinese perspectives, that could only lead to better results in my view.

      1. Also, in terms of my “bias,” sure, I was very annoyed that when I had spent 14 yuan in taxi fare to go the museum on August 15, that they were closed, because I very much wanted to go inside. And then for Xinhua to shove this 9/18 news in my face was like a personal insult, just reminding me of my own personal “humiliation” of having to go back all the way to ZhongJie in Shenyang in a taxi cab with a flat tire to limp back to my Starbucks after finding out that yes, the Liaoning Provincial History Museum in the center of the city was closed as well. And it was August 15! So my post suffers from a bit of aggravation: why should we only commemorate humiliation and not victory?!? On August 15, I, the American ally, was lined up in my predetermined role, ready to be useful for the CCP, for Xinhua, and for the laobaixing and what happened? Exactly nothing! I guess I should have gone to Dalian to scream and shout about some chemical plant, because at least there I would have been surrounded by people with PASSION for something, instead of all the empty and desolate squares and open books in Shenyang on the “day of victory.”

  2. Adam,
    Thanks for your reply.
    I am not sure if I can agree with you on many things. Let’s lay them out one by one.

    1) Dr. Sun and his party, the prototype of Blue party in Taiwan, are nothing but a bounch of mobsters. To me, they are no different from today’s Islamic extremists…throw a bomb..kill some one by a snipper. Makeing him a so called Democracy hero is a typical political game, which politicians along both Taiwan straight played long time. He is a dictator, no better than any dictators in the world and that is the root reason he is such loser all his life. General Huangxin was once his commrade and coouldn’t tolerate Dr.Sun’s bossy. General Cheng Jiongming was Dr.Sun’s miltary commander in chief, they later fought against each other. Can you give me a single person that can really get along with Dr. Sun, since you are a professor of Eastern Asia study? During the last decade of Dr. Sun’s life, he made deals with Russian and Japanesss to get their money and miltary support. Why? Because no China domestic politician or political group would like to work with him anymore. He put himself into a corner and can only sell China out to make his political life longer.

    If CCP is learning from lessons of his loser life and total failure of Guomingdang, I think it is good thing to do.

  3. 2) China is getting stronger and China still needs to utlize those opportunities to refresh those bitter memories, for politcail purposes or not, as long as those purposes server the nation good.

    生于忧患死于安乐/life springs from sorrow and calamity, death comes from ease and pleasure .

    Above is quoted from Mengzi. I think you know who he is.

    I am not sure if some Chinese people still remember the experience of their countries being invaded and people being slaughted. I am saying this because Fangzheng County of Dongbei was making tombs and grave stones for Japanese colonists of WW2.

    Money is important but not at the price of selling your countries out. For those people, 09-18 sirens should always be turned on in their head.

    1. 3)”And in the West we tend to be more focused on the “silent anniversaries.” ”

      We are talking about China, not west. What west people tend to do have nothing to do with China. China doesn’t have to follow western tendency on every direction.

      Let’s go back to your comments on 09-18 and 08-15. You believer 08-15 is a better day than 09-18. and you claim west people tend to be more foucsed on ‘silent anniversaries’.

      Tell me why one every 9-11, there is this big NY city sponsored commemoration?
      Tell me why there is a mornument in Pearl Harbor ?

      4)“On August 15, I, the American ally, was lined up in my predetermined role, ready to be useful for the CCP, for Xinhua, and for the laobaixing and what happened? Exactly nothing! ”

      You really crack me up when you make thoese comments.
      Were you serious that you were ready to be used by CCP or you are just joking?

      1. The last thing I want to talk with you is Ai weiwei.

        To me, he is a moron. Look at his ‘artworks’….I call his artworks porn! Mainstream Chinese will never accept a weirdo like this.

        There are tons of human rights lawyers in China, helping people fight against injustice side of society. You western never show any real support to those real heros, only lip services. You guys picked Ai weiwei as an icon of human rights fighter. That only renders bad images on your side. Many Chinese extremists, like Huangqiushibao, are saying Ai is just a puppet dog / 汉奸 of western invaders.

        I don’t agree with those extremists but I don’t accept Ai either. To me, he is just using those thing to build his own fame, so he can sell his ‘artworks’ in a good price. I have huge respects for those laywers and I feel Ai and his works are disgussting.

        1. 西方人要搞清中国士林的底细,尤其是红朝士林,先天就差几个档。像《红朝士林录》这些未出版作品,根本不在其视野内。老带着固有的概念,以为得计,呶呶不休,简直可笑。

      2. Oh, I am always ready to be used by CCP! (It’s really the only way to remain happy; look at how miserable Ai Weiwei is, he can’t even really be a good reactionary under the current conditions.)

        And absolutely, you are right about America’s (both historical and contemporary) emphasis on historical humiliations as justification for various policies. Some major gaps and quiet similarities in political and media systems.

        1. I think your point is well taken about the lawyers. I think Liu Xiaoyuan is perhaps one such lawyer. Most lawyers are rather circumspect in how they aproach things, and are much less active than artists like Ai in terms of self-promotion, narcissism, etc.

          I have noticed this with American advocates of human rights issues in North Korea (which are often blamed on China); there is a real unwillingness to acknowledge progress in China’s climate on rights (individual, human, property, information, whatever rights) and a lack of patience in digging in for the long haul to see how China’s environment and conditions for these issues can be improved. I think there are still quite a lot of people in the US who haven’t been to China, or who have, who imagine that the whole system is simply going to fall apart and therefore some quick subversion is all that is needed, rather than a committement to a joint and sustained future, which is what I’m interested in.

          Thanks for the discussion, Cloud!

  4. It is very interesting to see how pride and the fear of humiliation play such a large role in Chinese and many Asian cultures. I was talking to a friend about this event and 9-18 and we discussed how all countries take humiliation seriously, but how different countries handle their humiliations in different ways. Obviously in China they are not shy about bringing up this humiliation and using it as a way to put fear in people to not allow such a humiliation to happen again. But in America, when you consider an event like the Vietnam War, America attempted to forget about this war and those who fought in that war by sweeping it under the rug. How are we to learn from are mistakes… by evaluating them and revisiting them or by letting the past linger in the back of our minds, but never confront our past humiliations. Who seems to have learned their lesson?

    1. Rose, particularly interesting parallel between 9-18 and Vietnam! I think the US memorial by Maya Lin took something less than 10 years after the conflict to complete…

  5. Can we clarify what is meant by silent anniversary and the U.S focusing on them? I pose this question because I am curious as to how one might respond to anniversaries that are not anglo oriented. For example, thoughts on Juneteenth which commemorates the celebration of the end of terrorism aka Slavery.

    1. Standtotruth, Maybe the idea you’ve expressed is precisely why states feel a need to have such appearances of unity around “official” anniversaries. Once the space is opened up for alternate modes of commemoration or when groups other than “the nation” (imagined as a homogenous whole in juxtaposition to the foreign [also monolithic] threat), the cohesion around the ruling system can also come into question. One of the things that China is lacking it seems in particular are dates or museums designed to interrogate the notion of Chinese vs. Chinese violence. Even the museum of the War of Liberation (e.g. China’s civil war 1945-49) is all about the triumph of the CCP rather than, unsuprisingly, the deaths brought about in that struggle. It is better, from the standpoint of a ruling party, to commemorate the foreign invasion of 1931 rather than, say, the siege and starvation of Changchun in 1948.

      On a similar theme relating to the work on your blog, I wonder in what ways the violence in Tibet in various eras is commemorated today and how. 1959 events are now bound up into a new state-sponsored “Serf Liberation Day,” and some localities commemorate the violence of 1969, but far fewer. There is implicit in many celebrations sponsored by CCP in Lhasa the notion of “martyrs” in the PLA in Tibet, but never discussion of the violent opposing force or the need to use violence in the first place.

      A rather sprawling response from me, but hope that made some inroads into your actual question….

  6. Professor Cathcart,
    While reading your article I can’t help but note that you seem disappointed in China’s publicity of the anniversary of the Sept. 18th incident while seeming to downplay “…the anniversary of an important victory in the War of Resistance.”

    Perhaps this is just another way of continuing to remind the public at large of what can happen when it is unprepared to face a hostile outside force. Stealing a quote from George Santayana’s The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” After all, do you really think that the United States will be allowed to forget the tragedy of 9-11 not just any time soon, but even potentially 80 years from now?

    As far as downplaying the victory over the Japanese on August 15th, out of the two events, which do you feel would incite more emotion? Please allow me to use an analogy supplied by my admittedly limited depth of knowledge on the subject. Imagine a 12 year old getting beat up and having his lunch money stolen by an 8 year old, the 12 year old only gets his money back after parents get involved and force the 8 year old to hand it back over. Granted I’m not saying this is an exact assessment of how things happened, but with my limited knowledge and insight of the actions, this is how I can understand it in a broad sense. In any case, the 12 year old will likely retain the memory of the time he got punched in the nose and had his lunch money stolen in clearer detail over the memory of having the money returned by the adults. This is due to the fact that the punch to the nose was a direct attack against him while he had little direct influence to the return of the money. It’s not like he went out and punched the 8 year old back after all.

    Given those two dates, I’m really not surprised that the hype and build up is centered around the initial offense as opposed to the resolution. It gives the country something to unify behind and with the sense of unity, increases the power of the CCP and their control over the Chinese population.

    1. Good point about anniversaries meant to stimulate emotion. August 15 would ostensibly be a day of pride, which perhaps the CCP feels there is plenty of in the present day (China’s rise, etc.), whereas there is not a surplus of shame or patriotism motivated out of a sense of national crisis, or at least recollection of the national crises of the past.

  7. Professor Cathcart,

    I think it is interesting to see how much emphasis China chooses to put on the humiliation they have experienced, and not so much on the victories they have had during the years. Usually countries, and people for that matter, would rather focus on the great things accomplished, and rather downplay the set-backs. Is there a good explanation of why they continue to do this even today?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Torhild, hopefully some of the surrounding discourse helps explain things a bit, too. Of course it is a lot to expect that China would act like Germany and discuss in some public detail the problems they have caused for their neighbors or, God forbid, why they _deserved_ to lose a war! If by the way you have some Scandanavian-specific data or comparisons to bring up, I would really welcome that here or anywhere else.

  8. I do not consider myself to have a clear understanding of Chinese culture, or really any Asian culture in general, but I am familiar with their emphasis on honor. From your article, it seems clear to me that the government is keen on reminding the people of this catastrophe in Chinese history, but in my opinion this emphasis on 9-18 is not only meant as a statement that China will never allow such a tragedy to ever happen again. Rather, it is meant to tell the people that China lost so much honor in that invasion that they still have much work before their nation’s pride is restored. Defeating the Japanese alone was not enough, which perhaps explains the lack of emphasis on the anniversary of the victory in that war. Also, by putting the spotlight on a negative moment in Chinese history, the government surely will encourage the people to work harder rather than celebrate. If the spotlight were on the victory date, it would simply be a day of complacent celebration, similar to the 4th of July.

    1. Great points all around, Cole, esp. as regards July 4. I spent Bastille Day (July 14) in Paris and it was very much “complacent celebration” rather than leaders bucking people up for the difficult tasks ahead.

  9. Professor Cathcart,
    I think the phrase united against a common enemy is prevelant here. I recall the times in Cheng Du when there was the mass text about how terrible japan is. If the CCP keeps Japan and the humiliation at the forefront of peoples minds they will continually be united. Focusing on how bad things were makes people appreciate the things they have now. When people are upset then the government can say but atleast it isn’t as bad as it was then.

    This can also be used, as stated by cole above, as a call to action. With this remeberance the governement is pushing people to never let this happen again. To remember that what the CCP is doing is to protect the people from further humiliation. I think the CCP is clever in using this source of humiliation as a motivator and at the same time exerting thier control.

  10. Good morning Professor Cathcart,

    As I was considering the CCP’s focus on 9-18, as described above, one thought seemed to stand out. On the matter of culpability over the loss of Manchuria and similar Republican era defeats/tragedies, I wonder how useful these types of events may have been considered by the post ’49 CCP from an anti-Nationalist standpoint and if this consideration had any part to play in their cultural enshrinement. It seems like playing up these defeats may have served as indirect/inferred condemnation of Chiang Kai-Sheck and the Nationalist Party at large, in combination with the more obvious “never again!” strain of rhetoric that usually accompanies such dates.

    I’d imagine defeat can be just as powerful a sociopolitical tool as victory, when it is wielded against those that might be easily scapegoated.

  11. Dr. Adam Cathcart,

    Similar to others, I am also astonished by how China commemorate such “humiliation” than the victory itself. But probably… because they are still under MaoZedong’s influence. He once said that “Use the past to serve the present,” which China are doing now.
    I tried to ask some of my American friends (who are studying abroad in China now) on what they felt when they heard the ‘siren cry,’ though I haven’t receive a reply yet.
    I just asked my Chinese friends.. they said that middle school and high school had a huge commemorative ceremonies to remember this event… some school even have ‘special’ classes (9.18) for children so that they can remember this and “cherish [their] lives now.”

  12. One particular idea that stuck out to me from the entry was the possible use of cognitive dissonance by the CCP (if such a psychological term is able to be repurposed to apply to governments).

    Or rather, in the case of the “Manchukuo” incident, how the CCP could turn this period of immense humiliation into, as Cole stated above, a period of celebration? I’d like to touch more on the aspect of the CCP, while not condoning the protests, either officially or internally, will still own up to the fact that China was humiliated in the past. And yet, at the time of the incident itself, the communists were being forced out of the country. So in a sense, they’re effectively owning up to their own exile.

    My question is this: is this due to revisionist history, or just nationalism and trying to drive further support for their own party? Furthermore, would any sort of research reveal the fact that the CCP didn’t actually exist in that time, or again, would revisionist history claim that they did? I have little experience with China outside of the language, so cultural and educational nuances are slightly lost on me.

  13. 通篇夹带着私货。你怎么不去质疑犹太人反纳粹的教育行为和电影作品是政治操弄和宣传啊,你敢吗?伪善!

    1. So you want comparison between Japanese atrocities in China and those of the Nazis in World War II, and/or discussion of why the emphasis, method, and intent of Chinese _state_ commemoration of World War II is completely the same as, say, Steven Spielberg’s _Schindler’s List_ (presumably the type of “propaganda” you are referring to). This is more properly the subject of a book!

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